HEAR THE STORIES OF OTHERS, AND HONOR THEM
Posted on March 4, 2021 | Posted by Mary Stoneback
My story begins in mid-September 1954, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My mother’s sister and her husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he taught elementary kids in a one room school and she cooked lunches, helped clean the school, and milk goats to supplement the kid’s diet. While eating a picnic outside, we watched numerous Indian families climb into the back of multiple stock trucks. These families were being transported, in the uncovered trucks, to Idaho to gather up potatoes, their only source of cash income. A woman tribal elder came up to talk with us. As she was about to leave, she looked at me and told me that because my eyes are “wide set” people would tell me many things during my lifetime and to hear them. She left us with no further explanation, but we recalled her pronouncement many times over the years.
Fast forward to August 1961 on the Mandan Blackfoot Reservation north of Bismarck, ND, where my aunt and uncle then lived. He was then the Principal of the Indian high school. They had arranged for a Black couple, who were teachers and spent summers in Kansas City, to give me a ride to the Mandan Reservation. Being high school teachers, Mr. & Mrs. Chinn made me feel relaxed and comfortable shortly after we met. At the same time, “Freedom Riders” who were protesting ongoing segregation in America, were riding buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. We needed to go through downtown Minneapolis, since the Interstate system did not yet exist. As we approached the city, Mr. Chinn made his first request. He suggested that “things would go more smoothly if I were to sit up straight, look straight ahead, and not make eye contact with anyone.” He said much more, but we had essentially “had the talk” that all black men need to have with their coming-of-age sons. This part went smoothly.
The journey of nearly 1,000 miles was made with only necessary stops. Mr. Chinn’ second request or “talk” came at dusk as we approached Minot, ND. Mr. Chinn announced that we would stop to eat at the only restaurant that would serve him. (Think – “The Green Book” guide to safe travel for Blacks.) He told me that I would be served, but that being in “mixed company”, he might not be. I was to order and eat as though nothing was wrong. To my total joy, Mr. Chinn got served! He made no complaint or lecture, but at age 15 I understood the bigger picture.
Onward to 1968. I was in the Air Force, stationed at the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex. My first weekend in Colorado Springs, Senor & Senora DeHerrera invited me to a taco and quesadilla dinner with their family in their modest mobile home. Their accent was new to me, but still familiar in a warm way, like the Scandinavian lilt from my childhood. They told me the story about their lives and dreams of opportunity for themselves and their daughters. Only later did I figure out that skin color, a Spanish accent, and assumed ignorance due to limited education, reduced their life opportunities.
January 1971 and “Good Morning, Viet Nam”! I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. I was certainly not expecting to hear personal stories from the local population but hear them I did. The women hired by the U.S. government to clean our barracks, wash and press our clothes, and polish our boots became very conversive, once they understood that I was curious about them and their families. Mai (my), the lead maid, lived with a multi-generational family of 10 to 12 in a space of approximately 12’ X 12’. They slept on the floor on bamboo mats for comfort. The mats were rolled up and piled along one wall to make room for cooking, eating, and space for kids to do homework and adults to converse. Their primary concern was that if the Americans did not win the war, they and their families would most likely not survive, since they worked for a foreign power. Many Buddhists believe that giving a trusted person an image of themselves will assure that their soul will be in safe keeping. The day I left Viet Nam, Mai presented me with her picture. I can no longer locate the picture, but my pledge to honor her soul remains with me.
Each of these adults willingly shared the details of their lives with me. Yet, none of them complained about their lot in life. This may be because they did not know anything different. But, knowing that things could be changed to their benefit put a burden on my conscience.
The stories continue today, never very often and in sometimes unexpected ways. They come from the homeless, runaways, members of the LGBTQ community, and other disenfranchised and marginalized people among us. Much has changed in America since the days of my youth but the lack quality education and prejudice or suspicion of others due to their skin color or other non-conforming attributes are at least two major problems that continue to create barriers among many of us. This situation motivates me to speak out about the inequality that persists here in the United States.
I can never recall that any of these people I encountered asked me to share my story but that has not bothered me since I am honored to have had the opportunity to hear their stories. Living in the realm of creation centered spirituality has freed me to be open to all faiths and to “hear” the personal stories of all people, regardless of their heritage or background.
What does this have to do with anything? If you are concerned about living out your faith, try being open to “hearing” the story of at least one other person, with whom you may not otherwise associate, would be a good start. Good “hearing” to you. It is rewarding.
Rich Johnson – March 2021, ALC Online Contributor